The Shelf Life of Compost

Last week I went to my local garden centre to buy some organic, peat-free compost, in preparation for a frenzy of potting activity at the weekend. I came away with four large bags. I didn’t really need four bags, two would have done. But there was a deal on, and I couldn’t bring myself to pay eight pounds for two, when I could have four for just another two pounds. Just how many times do I need to get caught before I learn the lesson that if something is being sold cheap, there’s probably a reason?

Some of the plants I’d been hoping to pot on

It looked like a good deal, but in fact, it stank. I found out just how much it stank when I opened the first bag. For a moment, I thought I must have picked up the farmyard manure by mistake, but no, it was compost all right, it had just gone off. I suspect it was last years stock; they wanted shot of it, and so they’d reduced the price. It was stored outside, and partially under cover, but it must have got wet. And festered. To the point where now, it smells of drains.

Soil is supposed to contain bacteria, but I dread to think what that foul-smelling community of microscopic delinquents might do to a young plant. Fortunately, I also bought a bag of John Innes, which was OK, so we were able to get some potting done. And I risked using some of the bad stuff, mixed with sand and vermiculite, to pot up some of the Cannas. A bit of a risk, but we’ve got more than we can use. And as they seem able to not just survive, but to thrive in our compost bin, I hope they can do the same in this rancid compost.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with the other three-and-a-half bags. Throw them in the canal, maybe? (Joke!) I could take them back, but it would cost me more than they cost in fuel and time. Plus, I don’t think I can face the conflict. And it wouldn’t get me back the time I lost at the weekend. I don’t have many free weekends (or much energy left) to work on my own garden, so to have lost one under such circumstances is quite frustrating. Work is picking up now too, and I’m having to fit it in around the rain, which is still frequent, so there’s even less time. Oh well!

Narcissus Thalia – the fruits of some potting I managed to fit in last year.

Does anyone want some rancid compost?

The Sleeping Garden

Skeletal Achillea

Actually gardens (like money) never sleep. They may doze, but they’ve always got one eye half open, even if most of the plants are in hibernation. The weeds rarely stop entirely. In fact I’ve just done my first full-on weeding session of the year, for one of my customers whose borders had been invaded by a fine crop of annual weeds. Did no-one tell them it’s winter? Fortunately I managed to get most of the work done before the rain really set in (but it wasn’t pleasant out there).

The other thing (or rather; things) that don’t stop for winter, are the slugs and snails. From now until the growing season really gets going is a critical time. There are plenty of slugs around, and on mild nights (and days, sometimes) they’re out and about, trying to feed. But there isn’t much for them to eat. So when your perennials, bulbs, etc. tentatively poke their heads above ground, they’re likely to be grazed off at the neck. It’s a battleground out there, and at this time of year the plants are heavily outnumbered.

A Meagre Catch

Time then, for us gardeners to deploy our special powers to even the odds. In my own garden, because I want to garden organically, I don’t use slug pellets. I have other solutions up my sleeve. In the growing season I go out at night and pick them off. Not every night – I have got a life, of sorts.  At this time of year, slug traps work well. You can pay a lot for manufactured slug traps, or you can make your own. I recycle yoghurt pots or, better still, shallow glass dishes, and cover them with scraps of stone, to keep the rain from washing the beer away.

Slug Cairn

Last year I got the pond dug, filled and planted (though I’m still working on the water feature) and it plays host to a healthy population of frogs, which eat their fare share of slugs. Although I’ve never seen them doing it. I can’t imagine them tackling a slug that’s almost as long as they are (imagine a frog getting that stuck in its throat!) but they’re invaluable for keeping down the smaller slugs. They certainly did a good job protecting the hostas around the pond in my last garden.

There are a few little joyous touches here and there amongst the barren soil and dead foliage. The Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) has already flowered well, and there are snowdrops and winter aconites. Some of the daffs aren’t that far off flowering, and nor, surprisingly, is the Ceanothus. I’d like to think spring isn’t far away, but I know there’s some very cold days to come before it arrives.

Eranthis hyemalis

Snowdrop